Shazam is proof Warner Bros. might have cracked the master code to making films equal to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The next step is dramatically overhauling the marketing department to make audiences salivate over the next DC film like their Marvel counterparts.
With more efforts like Aquaman, Wonder Woman and now Shazam! selling audiences on the films should be a lot easier. That’d be extremely hard to tell from the seriously underwhelming trailers, which make the best modern DC comics film look like a stale slice of big (red) cheese.
If Wonder Woman captured the essence of the character better than any previous DC film, Aquaman celebrated the more outlandish nature of the character in a genre-bending adventure. Shazam is more personal, with the DNA of the comic source material laced in every scene with an awareness of how to make it work for modern audiences.
The trick here is the filmmakers didn’t make drastic alterations from the comics and happily embraced the concept. A superhero version of Big is hard to mess up thanks to such a fun premise. Shazam! doesn’t play it safe and worry about the cynics and DC Extended Universe haters – its filmmakers simply focus on making one of the funniest comic book movies yet. It’s not funny in a so bad it’s silly kind of way, but one that takes advantage of the inherent fun of the comic.
Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is still trying to track down his mother after getting separated from her at a carnival. After yet another incident, Billy is assigned a new foster family. Billy’s met with open arms by Victor (Cooper Andrews, The Walking Dead) and Rosa (Marta Milans) and their foster children Mary (Grace Fulton), Eugene (Ian Chen), Darla (Faithe Herman), Pedro (Jovan Armand) and Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer, It).
In a rare selfless act, Billy comes to Freddy’s aid bringing him to the attention of the wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou, Captain Marvel) who needs a champion to combat a brewing evil. But Shazam doesn’t offer Billy a training manual and now he’s got to learn these new powers and get acclimated to instantly becoming an adult (Zachary Levi, Thor: The Dark World). Levi is so convincing as a child in an adult’s body from his posture, ‘adult’ voice and overall demeanor. This wouldn’t work without Levi being as willing to have fun with the role and just cut loose.
Shazam! does a strong job of setting up its villain by giving Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong, Kingsman: The Golden Circle) a deeply personal agenda beyond he’s just the bad guy. Sivana might not be the most impressive comic book movie villain we’ve seen lately, but his arc gives him strong motivation.
Real quick. Shazam was originally titled Captain Marvel in his 1940s comic as Billy Batson gained his powers by speaking the wizard Shazam’s name. After a pesky and lengthy legal battle with Marvel Comics, who also introduced various characters named Captain Marvel, DC was forced to change the name to Shazam. It’s confusing, but don’t let any ultra fanboys scoff at you for calling this character Captain Marvel too.
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Director David F. Sandberg completely gets this character. Sandberg understands the thrill of a teen with powers is not running around playing hero, but taking selfies, buying beer and generally abusing his powers in a harmlessly self-absorbed way. The patience to just let Shazam! be fun rather than forcing Billy to ‘grow up’ makes a huge difference in this presentation. Sandberg is confident enough to balance this playful mentality with expected superhero action to make Shazam! stand out from the slew of superhero films.
Sandberg does a great job with the action sequences so they’re not too chaotic and easy to follow. There’s a smoothness here that shows exactly why Sandberg was the best choice for this gig.
One of the better changes in the New 52/DC Rebirth era of DC Comics is the modernization of Captain Marvel/Shazam particularly the diverse family makeup. Shazam! boasts a terrific family dynamic. Herman (This Is Us) steals the film as the sweet little sister, but the film is extraordinarily well cast. There’s a sense of Stranger Things or Goonies for older audiences that really works. Shazam! doesn’t wither out and become boring whenever Billy isn’t powered up and there’s no letdown during the great family scenes.
With Patty Jenkins on Wonder Woman, James Wan on Aquaman and now Sandberg we’re getting DC movies with filmmakers who understand what makes the characters special and interesting beyond their abilities. The biggest shame is Warner Bros. has found a formula for success after botching the latest cinematic take on Superman. It’s a shame Henry Cavill couldn’t fit a cameo in his schedule. The film was all but begging for him to make a quick appearance.
There’s some nice Easter Eggs for longtime Captain Marvel/Shazam fans with one directly coming to the forefront in the post credit scene. For the sake of spoilers, I won’t ruin one of the film’s big moments, but it’s exactly what I hoped would occur early on and the payoff is amazing.
The script, credited to Henry Gayden (with rewrites provided by a team of writers), beautifully captures the tone for a teenager who one day realizes he’s as powerful as Superman. Just because he’s got superpowers, Billy doesn’t immediately become a superhero. Yes, this is a traditional origin story, but that was absolutely the way to go with this character. Besides, there’s enough changes from the standard format that it still manages to feel fresh and fun.
Those training montages that were the focus of the trailers don’t come off nearly as tedious and lead to some very funny scenes. Gayden takes some good-natured swipes at some of the traditional superhero movie cliches like the triumphant realization of flight and long distance communication.
You’d never know it from the trailers, which do a horrible job of selling this film, but Shazam! is fantastic, funny and tremendously entertaining. It’s exactly the kind of movie Warner Bros. needed to convince audiences Aquaman and Wonder Woman weren’t flukes, but the blueprint for success going forward.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10
Photo Credit: Steve Wilkie/DC Comics